Was he the biblical patriarch, Abraham, his grandson, Jacob or the duplicitous, destructive Laban?
One fact is certain, the character’s modern Christian Maronite descendants roam no more and now live in Kfar Bar'am (Kafr Bir'im) northern Israel where they preserve their ancient heritage and teach Syriac-Aramaic as a spoken language to a new generation at the local elementary school in the village of Gush Halav (‘Jish’).
Behind much of the work is Shadi Khalloul, Philos Project fellow and founding chairman of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association, who last week addressed a large ESRA Karmiel crowd about his life, work and love of Israel.
Khalloul began by recalling his childhood difficulties among Arab schoolmates, continued with his IDF service as a paratrooper, days as a university student in Las Vegas, USA where he lectured about his background at his tutor’s behest and even included a song and a recital of the Christian Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic.
It was indeed sobering and instructive to see Khalloul point at an inscribed Hebrew plaque on a wall of the sanctuary in the Kehilat Hakerem Synagogue where he was speaking and to consider that although a devout Catholic, he would have a better grasp than many Jews of major Jewish texts like the Kaddish prayer, most of which is in Aramaic.
But Khalloul was keen to stress the tragic, historic commonalities shared by Jews and Christian Maronites. Not only has there been a continuous Christian Maronite presence in northern Israel and southern Lebanon, he pointed out that the first Christians and their early bishops were all Jewish. Further, his ancestors, like their Jewish counterparts, were persecuted and almost annihilated by an enemy he dubbed ‘the first ISIS’. Like today, Muslim invaders accomplished ‘ethnic cleansing’, not only by mass slaughter but through population displacement, absorption, acculturation and the destruction of artefacts of major significance.
He claimed that many Muslim Arab villages and towns in the Galilee were once Christian and cited Karmiel’s next-door neighbour, Deir al-Asad (‘the lion's monastery’) by example. Where was the monastery now, he demanded.
This is why Khalloul devotes himself to ‘building bridges’ between Christians and Jews in Israel as well as to “reviving the Aramean identity, heritage and language” and restoring Kafr Bir'im as the first Christian Aramaic community and town in the Galilee, northern Israel.
As a captain (reserve) in the IDF Paratroop Division, Khalloul views army service as a great melting pot for Israeli society and founded the first Christian-Jewish youth pre-military preparation programme for Israeli leadership to encourage such integration.
Khalloul’s next plan is to win a seat in the Knesset as a candidate for the Jewish Zionist party, so it appears that more of his ambitions may be realised in the not too distant future.
In this age of brazen, ever-growing antisemitism I insist that the Jewish community should both value and cherish its relatively few non-Jewish friends like Shadi Khalloul. I look very much forward to meeting him again soon.
© Natalie Wood (06 July 2018)